PASADENA, Calif. - For years, Steven Spielberg had kicked around the idea of a television show about the backstage drama involved in mounting a Broadway musical.
Not exactly wanting for work, the legendary Hollywood director-producer busied himself with soldiers and robots and dinosaurs, but the idea kept coming back to him like an insistent show tune refrain.
“The competition, the creativity, the fights, the arguments, the dreams, the egos, disappointments, the energy. I thought it would make a compelling story on a weekly basis, one that a television series could probably most effectively tell,’’ Spielberg said in a message to reporters at last month’s Television Critics Association press tour.
On Monday at 10 p.m., Spielberg’s dream becomes a reality when NBC lifts the curtain on its ambitious new musical drama, “Smash.’’
The star power behind the show doesn’t end with Spielberg, as multiple Emmy, Oscar, and Tony nominees and winners populate the cast and creative team.
Emmy winner Debra Messing (“Will & Grace’’) and Tony nominee Christian Borle (“Legally Blonde’’) star as a lyrics-and-music duo cooking up a show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Oscar winner Anjelica Huston portrays the producer spurring them on. Tony and Grammy winning composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray’’) composed the series’ songs.
The veteran musical production duo of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron received the first call that Spielberg made. The pair, who have scored on the big screen (“Hairspray,’’ “Chicago’’), the stage (the current revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’’), and television (“Drop Dead Diva,’’ “A Raisin in the Sun’’), in turn placed the development in the hands of creator Theresa Rebeck, who herself had been wanting to tackle the subject for years.
Rebeck, a prolific Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright and TV scribe for shows such as “NYPD Blue,’’ remembers the day she got the call from Spielberg to discuss “Smash’’ as a “really a good day in my life.’’
While some of the drama in “Smash’’ centers around which young actress will land the coveted role of Monroe, the seasoned Ivy Lynn (brassy Broadway vet Megan Hilty) or green-but-talented newcomer Karen Cartwright (“American Idol’’ alum Katharine McPhee), there was never any doubt that Rebeck was the right leading lady.
“Theresa’s the only person that we know who has that authenticity of writing the way Aaron Sorkin wrote ‘The West Wing.’ You felt like you were there eavesdropping on these people and you shared their personal lives,’’ says Zadan.
“She’s a fantastic, incredibly interpretive and funny person. She’s incredibly inclusive, really inspirational,’’ says Huston. “I love her dialogue, it’s fun to say.’’
“She’s fearless and doesn’t suffer fools,’’ says Jack Davenport, who plays the Machiavellian director of the Monroe musical. “But I like that about her. She’s a really nice boss to have.’’
Rebeck is also an impressive juggler, with various plays in various stages of production in various parts of the country, including “Seminar,’’ which is currently running on Broadway.
“I’ve concluded over the years now that she actually does not sleep,’’ says Christopher Wigle, producing director at the Huntington Theatre, who worked with Rebeck on the premiere of her play “Mauritius.’’ “She’s just so smart and she has complete comprehension of the workings of theater. She gets it.’’
And she loves it, fiercely; which makes “Smash’’ a clear case of writing what you know, including a scene in the pilot where Karen has dinner with her well-meaning but nervous parents.
“That’s a scene that everyone in the theater has in their back pocket,’’ says Rebeck. “The dinner with mom and dad where they let you know that they think you’re insane.’’
When Rebeck finished her doctorate, she knew she was never going to be an academic. (She earned a master’s degree in playwrighting and a doctorate in Victorian melodrama, both at Brandeis University). “I wasn’t cut out for offices either,’’ she says. “That’s sort of important for me for people to know about theater people. We put a lot on the line, there’s a lot of financial risk. There’s a lot of disaster in our lives because we chose to try and go for the thing that inhabits our heart. I think there are a lot of people working in offices who have those dreams themselves and maybe aren’t built psychologically to put it all on the line like that, but who are happy to watch someone do it for them.’’
One of the people doing it for them will be McPhee, who trained at the Boston Conservatory before heading off to “American Idol.’’
“I don’t think I ever could’ve predicted something so wonderful and amazing,’’ says McPhee of her current role, which she says is informed by her time at the conservatory. “I really learned a lot about the musical theater world and the craziness that goes on. There will be a lot of jokes that will go past people’s heads, but for those that are tapped into the theater, there will be a lot of fun things for them to tap into, the inside stuff.’’
Her onscreen rival Hilty thinks that theater novices will also be able to get a toehold in the world of “Smash.’’
“I liken it to ‘ER,’ ’’ says the petite blonde who starred in “Wicked’’ and “9 to 5: The Musical.’’ “I’m not a doctor but I loved that show and tuned in because of the interesting characters and the really interesting relationships. You don’t have to love musical theater or New York or singing to fall in love with these characters.’’
Plus, with a generation of viewers primed on “Glee,’’ “Idol,’’ and “High School Musical,’’ Hilty says “this is the perfect moment for a show like this.’’
The creative team understands the “Glee’’ comparisons but Rebeck says there will be a clear delineation between the shows.
“I think ‘Glee’ is a great show and I’m perfectly happy to be included in conversations with them, but I think tonally it’s more along the lines of ‘NYPD Blue,’ where I worked for three years in the ’90s. It’s a workplace drama and the work is serious,’’ she says.
Although Rebeck knows that NBC is hoping “Smash’’ will help reverse its sliding fortunes, she says the pressure has been minimal, the support abundant - especially with regard to shooting in New York - and she’s feeling very confident. “If this doesn’t work, I’ll eat my hat,’’ she says.
Be it boffo or bomb, “Smash’’ will be coming to Boston at least in a virtual way. Asked if the out-of-town tryout slated for the 15th and final episode of the first season would be in the Hub (in keeping with a longstanding Broadway tradition), Rebeck laughs and says, “Of course it is! It’s going to be at the Colonial!’’Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.